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WAITING FOR COHN

By Morton Zachter 

October 1, 2007

This piece is derived from a chapter of Dough. Dough: A Memoir is winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in September 2007. For a readers guide or more information visit www.ugapress.org.

The Forecast for December 26, 1947, from the United States Weather Bureau:
NEW YORK CITY AND VICINITY – Cloudy today with occasional snow ending this afternoon, followed by partial clearing, highest temperature near forty.
The city that never sleeps slept. At 3:20 A.M., snow flurries provided a preview of coming attractions but no one noticed.
The snowfall officially began at 5:25 A.M. At 7, when Uncle Joe removed the copper-colored Yale padlocks and pushed the front gate open, two inches of snow covered the sidewalk in front of the store. The snow muted the usual screeching of the rusty metal gate. It was a powdery snow, the kind that was easy to push off your sidewalk provided there was not much accumulation. Based on the forecast, Uncle Joe figured he would shovel in the afternoon when it stopped snowing. Inside, he coerced the store’s good-for-nothing heater into action, removed his coffee from a paper bag, took the lid off, and watched the steam rise.
Yesterday was Christmas. Only one bakery in the largely Ukrainian neighborhood had been open, and it had been a busy afternoon. Customers had left with cake and dinner rolls, but no deliveries had arrived at the tiny bakery on 9th Street just off First Avenue.
But on that particular snowy morning in 1947 the shelves were empty, except for a few rum-and-brandy-flavored fruitcakes. Uncle Joe was untroubled. To him, fruitcakes got better with age, and customers were never a problem at the store. The question was merchandise, which meant the bread and cake once it was in the store ready for sale to customers. Who was going to deliver stuff, their name for the bread and cake before it arrived, on a day like this? A Friday, the day after Christmas, children off from school, the day cold and bleak, beds snug and warm.
Uncle Joe sat on the cold white tiles of the display window shelf, sipped the sugarless black coffee he favored, stared out at the snow, and waited for the deliveries he was certain would come when the snow stopped. And it had to stop soon. In Uncle Joe’s superstitious mind, snowstorms arrived in New York only after New Year’s Day. He was convinced the weather was familiar with the major holidays and acted accordingly. No matter the actual weather, Uncle Joe started to wear short-sleeve shirts on Memorial Day and went back to flannel long-sleeve shirts on Labor Day.
Mom and Uncle Harry drifted in at 10 A.M. My mom still lived with her mother and two brothers in the house where she grew up on Hegemen Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. After their five-block walk from the 14th Street subway station, their hats and the shoulders of their coats wore a layer of snow that needed brushing off.
Outside the store, seven inches of white powder had fallen in less than five hours. A car clanked as it snaked down the block, the metallic sound of its chained tires muffled by the snow.
“What do you think?” Uncle Joe said. “It can’t keep up like this much longer.”
“It’s snowing very hard,” Uncle Harry said.
“Do you think anyone will deliver today?” Mom asked.
Harry said, “Maybe Cohn – he’s crazy enough to work in this weather.”
“So why are we here?”
“Like I said, Helen, only the meshuggeners.”
According to the New York Times, Benjamin Parry, the U.S. Weather Bureau’s chief meteorologist in New York City, noted the remarkable rate of the snowfall that morning; it was all snow with virtually no wind. So, according to him, this was not a blizzard, which, he said, was a snowstorm accompanied by high winds and zero or subzero temperatures. Lay observers called it a snow cloudburst. Descriptions did not matter. Visibility vanished. When mom and her brothers peered through the display windows, they could barely see the buildings across the street.
At the height of the storm, between 3 and 4 P.M., the snow fell at more than three inches per hour. By then, nineteen inches of snow covered the city. The sanitation department was losing the battle to keep roads and bridges clear. “It’s like trying to sweep the sea back,” said one worker.
All flights were cancelled at LaGuardia Field. There was no bus service in Manhattan and the Bronx. Ships entering the harbor dropped anchor and those scheduled to leave remained at their piers. UPS hoped to resume normal deliveries the next day. Eskimos from Alaska, in New York to take part in an exhibition at the Grand Central Palace, hitched up their huskies to their dog sleds and gave them a workout on the barren wilderness of Park Avenue.
Many stores and companies closed early and sent their employees home, but getting home was a pilgrimage. After an announcer assured commuters that trains were running on time, passengers boarded the 5:19 for Chappaqua at Grand Central Station. The announcement was correct about only the departure time. The 5:19 took seven hours to crawl from South White Plains to North White Plains – usually a seven-minute trip. The train stopped short of the station, and passengers were last seen walking through the snow on the rails. At Pennsylvania Station, passengers fortified themselves at the new liquor store; there was a bottle party in almost every car. At 6:09 P.M., service on the Long Island Railroad was suspended indefinitely.
Travelers were stranded even in Manhattan. A woman bringing a cooked turkey to a party boarded a downtown bus at Broadway and 160th Street. The bus got no further than 83rd Street. After several hours, she, her fellow passengers, and their driver ate the turkey.
New Jersey commuters took the subway uptown hoping to find a bus or taxi to get them back home across the George Washington Bridge. But, with no buses or cabs to be had, thousands of people, barely visible in the snowy twilight, walked across the bridge to New Jersey, collars raised, heads down, in meager defense against the storm.
By 5 P.M., the store was still. Customers had stopped coming in hours ago.
“How much you think is out there now, Harry?” Mom asked.
“They said a couple of feet on the radio,” Uncle Harry replied.
“What are you talking about?” Uncle Joe said. “It can’t be more than a foot.”
“Maybe it’s time to go home?” Mom suggested.
“Wait. Let’s see how it goes,” replied Uncle Harry. “Getting home is no problem. We walk to Fourteenth Street, take the train to New Lots, and walk home from the station like always.”
Meanwhile, groceries delivered daily – such as bread, milk, and eggs – were almost completely gone from the shelves of retail stores. There was ample supply; the problem was getting delivery trucks through. Milk trucks bound for New York City were stalled throughout Westchester. State troopers tried to escort the trucks, but even the escort cars got stuck in the snow. A man died of a heart attack on the Saw Mill River Parkway, and policemen had to carry his body for two miles because ambulances could not get through the drifts.
On WNYC, New York City Fire Commissioner Quayle announced, “Life and property, from fire hazards, have never been in such jeopardy.” With streets practically impassable, he urged all New Yorkers to refrain from lighting their Christmas trees until the snow emergency had passed.
As the when-to-go home debate swirled at the store, Suzy the bakery’s black cat, lifted her head from her stained-cake-box throne on top of the heater. Then Uncle Harry, Uncle Joe, and my mom heard the muffled clank of tire chains. The faint clanking grew louder. A delivery truck came to a halt in front of the store; the driver-side door swung open; and someone descended, disappearing into a snow bank behind a buried car. The figure reappeared, high-stepping in the direction of the store, holding a pyramid of cake boxes aloft.
“Well what do you know,” said Uncle Joe. “It’s Cohn.”
Mr. Martin Cohn turned his back to the front door and pushed it in with his rear end. Inside, he turned to face his appreciative audience.
“Hi Cowboys, I was in the neighborhood and figured you could use some bread and cake on a beautiful day like this.”
It was not long before Mr. Cohn returned to his high-riding truck and disappeared behind a curtain of falling snow. The muted clanking of his tire chains was heard long after he was out of sight. His tire prints and footprints quickly filled with snow, leaving no trace of his daring. But, in the store, merchandise was no longer a problem.
And, though thousands of cars and trucks were stuck in their tracks all over the tri-state area, Mr. Cohn was not the only delivery man who completed his appointed rounds that day. At the height of the afternoon snowfall, a Railway Express employee delivered a Hartz Mountain canary to a New York Times pressman at his Bellmore, Long Island home. He had ordered it from a Manhattan pet store two weeks before.
By 7 P.M., twenty-four inches of snow had fallen. Further uptown, Times Square, usually packed with holiday revelers, was deserted. Some bars hosted one or two commuters hoisting a few and wishing they had hotel rooms for the night. The absolute stillness was an object of wonder to the policemen on duty there. They had never experienced anything like it.
At about the same time, downtown, in Battery Park, a woman named Carly Beckwith wandered around in the storm with a twenty-four-inch-long cedar rod marked in tenths of an inch. She wore a polo coat, a bright scarf, and ten-inch-high rubber boots with lots of snow in them. She was thirty-one years old and was said to have never caught cold.
But she had a dilemma. As the snow depth exceeded two feet, her measuring stick became useless. This had never happened before. She discarded her rod and started working with a yardstick, even though it was not meteorologically approved equipment. Accuracy mattered to Miss Beckwith. She was the official snowfall reader for the U.S. Weather Bureau in New York City.
Her fellow Weather Bureau employee, Mr. Parry, made it clear that the only reason his department’s snowfall prediction was two feet short was because the storm originated from a point off southern New England where the bureau had no observation points. Twenty-six inches of snow blanketed New York City – the highest snowfall ever recorded in the city’s history until 2006. It was even more than the Blizzard of 1888, which, Mr. Parry said, was a “real blizzard.”
At about the time Carly Beckwith picked up her yardstick – the peak of the storm several hours past – customers were heading back to the Store. Mom, Uncle Harry, and Uncle Joe waited, shelves full, staring out at the snow still slowly falling. And this is where I will leave them, as winter closes in.